At least 178 people are dead after fierce storms and tornadoes barreled across the southern United States. One hundred twenty-eight people were killed in Alabama alone. Alabama’s Browns Ferry nuclear power plant was forced to use backup generators after its main power source was knocked out. The city of Tuscaloosa was among the hardest hit, with at least 15 people killed. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox said the death toll could rise.
Mayor Walter Maddox: “As of 7:30 p.m., we have 15 confirmed fatalities, and I’m afraid that number is going to be ever increasing. We have well over a hundred injuries throughout the city of Tuscaloosa. We have hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed, and hundreds more damaged.”
In addition to the Alabama toll, 11 people were killed in Mississippi, another 11 in Georgia, while one person died each in Tennessee and Virginia. A total of 139 tornadoes were recorded, putting April on track to break the all-time record for monthly tornadoes.
In the Occupied Territories, the rival Palestinian political factions Fatah and Hamas have reached an agreement to end their nearly five-year rift. The agreement reportedly covers several major points of contention, including the formation of a transitional government, security arrangements, release of all prisoners with a non-criminal background, and the restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow Hamas’s membership. The two sides have been locked in a bitter conflict since Fatah and the Bush administration tried to overthrow Gaza’s Hamas-led government in 2006 after Hamas won Palestinian national elections. Israel says it will continue to reject any peace negotiations with a government that includes Hamas. The Obama administration signaled its opposition to the deal by reiterating the longstanding U.S. designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.
In Libya, a NATO air strike has killed 12 rebels and wounded five in Misurata. The attack marks the second time this month NATO planes have mistakenly bombed the Libyan opposition. The United States, meanwhile, has ordered the expenditure of some $25 million in surplus government goods to support the rebel forces. On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, said the rebels are deserving of U.S. backing.
Gene Cretz: “They are working through the normal bugs that would be part of any, you know, stand-up transitional government that has not had — in a country where you have not had politics for 40 years. So I think, in terms of what he has found so far, he would confirm or affirm that our determination that they were a serious group worthy of support has been borne out.”
Cretz also said he estimates 10,000 to 30,000 people have been killed in Libya’s unrest. More than 1,000 are believed to have died in Misurata alone.
The Syrian government is continuing a crackdown on anti-government demonstrators with a military operation in the city of Daraa. On Wednesday, state forces reportedly took control of a local hospital and fired at anyone who approached. A human rights group in Daraa claims to have counted at least 35 deaths in the city and says electricity, water and telecommunications have been cut off. A second human rights group has collected the names of at least 453 civilians killed in Syria’s last six weeks of protests. Two hundred members of the nation’s ruling Baath party resigned on Wednesday in protest of the government assault. The developments come as an effort to condemn the Syrian crackdown has failed at the United Nations. A Security Council resolution to call for an international probe was scrapped after Russia, China and Lebanon voiced opposition. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Obama administration continues to consider “a range of options” to pressure Syria.
Susan Rice: “My government calls on President Assad to change course now and heed the calls of his own people. We also call upon the international community to respond to this brutal crackdown and to hold accountable those who are perpetrating these gross human rights violations. The United States has expressed its position to the Syrian government, and we’re considering a range of options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the outrageous and ongoing use of violence against peaceful protesters.”
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, meanwhile said there is no need for an international probe because his government is conducting its own investigation.
Bashar Ja’afari: “There is no need, according to us, there is no need for any U.N. investigation commission, with this regard, because our national body has already started looking into the matter, in its wide spectrum, and then later on we will see the outcomes of this investigation.”
In Yemen, 12 people were reportedly killed and nearly 200 wounded when Yemeni forces opened fire on an anti-government demonstration in the capital city of Sana’a. Snipers were seen on rooftops aiming at a crowd of roughly 100,000 protesters as they filled a city square and surrounded the state television building.
Protester: “We were marching peacefully, and they fired at us with bullets. We were peaceful. Five or six of our friends fell beside me, and we tried to pull them while they fired and threw tear gas at us.”
In Bahrain, four pro-democracy protesters have been sentenced to death and three to life in prison for their alleged roles in the killing of two police officers during rallies last month. All seven were tried in secret. The verdicts are the first to come out of the Bahrain popular uprising since it began in February.
Tibetan exiles have elected an international law expert as their new prime minister. Lobsang Sangay will assume the political duties of the 75-year-old Dalai Lama, who is stepping down. Sangay, who has never lived in or visited Tibet, said he will continue the Dalai Lama’s policy of seeking “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet under Chinese rule.
Lobsang Sangay: “My standing for the election will send a message to Beijing that their calculation — at least some of them are calculating that with the passing away of the elder generation, the Tibetan movement will fizzle out and Tibetan government will disappear. That will not happen. The hard work of the elder generation and the contribution they have made will always be remembered and celebrated by younger generation, and we will do our best to continue our struggle as long as it takes, until freedom is restored in Tibet, and dignity and identity of Tibetan people are respected.”
The White House has released a more extensive record of President Obama’s birth certificate in response to longstanding right-wing claims he was not born in the United States. Obama said the issue had become a distraction.
President Obama: “I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve.”
One of the most prominent so-called “birthers,” real estate tycoon and prospective Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, took credit for pressuring the White House to finally release Obama’s birth certificate.
Donald Trump: “Today I’m very proud of myself because I’ve accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish. He should have done it a long time ago. Why he didn’t do it when the Clintons asked for it, why he didn’t do it when everybody else was asking for it, I don’t know.”
Trump is now calling on President Obama to release his college records.
President Obama flew to New York last night to attend three back-to-back fundraisers. The first event was held at the home of former New Jersey governor and Goldman Sachs chair, Jon Corzine. The New York Times described the $35,800-a-plate event as Obama’s first in a “kiss-and-make-up effort” with Wall Street donors. The Obama campaign is hoping to raise $1 billion for the 2012 election.
Lawmakers in Indiana and Florida have approved measures imposing sweeping curbs on abortion. The Indiana measure would ban abortions after 20 weeks into pregnancy and strip all funding to the local chapter of Planned Parenthood. The Florida bill would bar federal health reform grants from paying for abortions and force all women to pay for ultrasounds before they can end their pregnancy.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled businesses facing arbitration can force customers or employees to pursue their cases individually rather than joining in a class action. The 5-4 decision reverses a California Supreme Court ruling that allowed customers to form a class with others, even if they had signed arbitration agreements barring class actions. The ruling could jeopardize a pending effort by at least 500,000 female workers to bring a class action sexual discrimination case against the retail giant Wal-Mart.